Should personal trainers really become coaches?

I was fortunate enough to listen to the wisdom of the best in the fitness business at Filex. One theme that stood out was “coaching”.  Why should personal trainers care about coaching? Can’t we just stick with prescribing exercise? Isn’t coaching someone else’s job?

Personal trainers are not trained and therefore not qualified to “coach” clients on goal setting, mindset, behaviour change, etc.  That’s for counsellors and psychiatrists. Sure PT’s might give some tips on goal-setting and lifestyle but personal trainers are only really qualified to prescribe exercise.  So they should refer out any skills that fit too far outside of that core expertise and clients should only expect what they pay for…right?

Well actually I think the answer to the question of coaching depends on the answer of another question…

“What is the problem, people are hiring us to solve for them?”

Troy Morgan asked the audience this in his inspiring session on the “Business of creating a difference” at Filex and I think it really hits the nail on the head, so why are people hiring personal trainers?

Personal trainers need to ask clients why

If they’re hiring us to solve a knowledge problem then we can just be teachers. They come in with no idea or a bad idea how to do something, and we give them the information and hey presto – problem solved. Another happy customer so long as you can outcompete your competitors, and especially Google.

If they’re hiring us to solve a technique problem then we can just be technical trainers. They come in with bad technique or the wrong technique and we show them how to do the right technique. The customer can walk away happy if they leave feeling more confident on how to do their exercise program.

If they’re hiring us to solve a boredom problem then we can just be entertainers. Some of my own fitness bootcamp clients can be like that. They hire me just to make them move. They don’t really seem to care about the result. They are most satisfied if they feel like they’ve exercised and had fun at the same time with their group.

BUT do you have a client that is tired, stressed, sad, emotional, image conscious and overweight?

Which problem are they needing a personal trainer to fix?

Knowledge, technique and entertainment for a few hours a week…that’s probably not going to cut it.  Even if they think it’s just a matter of getting the “right workout program”, their problem is more complicated.  Their self-sabotaging beliefs and behaviours will be fighting our best exercise plan, motivation and good teaching the remaining 166 hours of the week.

So will we better solve their problem by prescribing more efficient exercises or coaching them towards better beliefs, growing their confidence to exercise and adopting healthier habits when we’re not together?

I make a real distinction between coaching and training

Even though I see a personal trainer’s job is to provide both.

I define training in a narrower sense and see it placing more emphasis solving the knowledge and technique problem. It’s more prescriptive than coaching.  It’s telling and teaching people what to do. Technical trainers act more like a doctor of exercise. “Do this exercise, this many times with this intensity”.  In essence, the goal is to make the client a more effective and efficient exerciser.

However, I personally see coaching as much broader solution. It’s about helping the whole person – body, mind and spirit.  It’s exploratory. It’s nudging, questioning and guiding a person to find their own solutions.  It’s a more equal relationship – like a professional friendship.  It’s talking through lifestyle problems and understanding the root problems and inspiring new beliefs.  In essence, the goal is to make the client a more successful, resilient, confident person.

PTs need to understand behaviour and train the whole person

There is definitely a market for personal trainers to prescribe exercise and help people be more effective and efficient exercisers.  Hearing expert Tony Boutagy (PhD in sports science) talk at the PT Breakfast was inspirational.

Tony knows more about exercise science than I could ever dream of. He’s an expert and very successful at what he does. Tony freely admitted his strength is more in the academic/research side of things, teaching more than coaching. So for someone like me – a disciplined, determined, time-poor guy – he’d possibly be perfect (if I could afford him ;) because I could simply apply his advise.

But if I was the kind of client that was feeling tired, stressed, sad, emotional, image conscious and overweight all the time…wouldn’t my priority be more likely be to eat better, sleep better and simply exercise a little bit more each week. Anything would be better than nothing.

My behaviour, motivation and beliefs would be more of a problem than the type of exercise I were doing. At least I’d be exercising! So I’d be hiring a personal trainer for their ability to coach me to develop better beliefs and habits.  To transform my lifestyle. To change my life.

The market for lifestyle coaches

And how many people fit into this category – struggling with motivation, confidence and time but wanting to change their lifestyle?

As far as I can see, there are a lot more people that are in this market than the motivated, confident and time/money rich market.  And it’s glaringly obvious by our spiralling rates of diabetes, obesity, depression and (dis)stress.

In fact at the Filex PT Summit, we were asked to put our hands up if we often felt more like a counsellor than a personal trainer. I looked around the room and could see a lot more hands up than down. So I take that as a signal that we’re already asked to act as a coach anyway by our clients – and why shouldn’t we?

We can just focus on the session and being the experts at the gym but this will only get us so far with many clients. I see this approach similarly to a driving instructor who will focus on teaching a student how to safely parallel park but not investigate why the student keeps crashing whenever it rains.

My belief is that personal trainers have a natural ability to become good coaches. Personal trainers are often good communicators, inspiring and people-people. We don’t have to and probably shouldn’t delve as deep as a professional psychologist might but we can confidently ask our clients to (re)think about why they do what they do and helping them discover their own solutions to their biggest problems.

What is coaching ?

Kathy McKenzie, founder of Fire Up Coaching, started the coaching conversation on the first day of the conference by reminding us how important it is for us to uncover our client’s “Why”.  Simon Sinek was frequently referenced throughout the conference since he popularised the idea of understanding why we want to achieve or change something before looking at what to do or how to do it (the Golden Circle).

Vanessa Bennett, corporate leadership and wellness expert, had a powerful question for her clients, “Why is that important to you”… She doesn’t ask this just once though. She asks as many times as needed to hit the desired target because this question is like a heat seeking missile. It helps us get closer and closer to resonating with someone’s deepest reasons in their subconscious mind.

Vanessa actually created a very interesting experience with us in the audience. She had us join in peers and ask that question, “Why?”, as many times as needed to get to a truly meaningful answer.  When I was asking the question I was sure my partner was getting over it and about to punch me in the nose…I was sure I was sounding childish and annoying…but what was surprising about it was that it actually felt really natural when I was being asked.  I guess we actually want to be asked why because no one is asking, not even ourselves. Why are we not being asked why more often?

Kylie Ryan, mindset coach and weight-loss expert, went one step further. She wants us to find the why that makes our client cry.  Not in a nasty way but that’s when you know the question has hits its mark. The reaction will release enough pain or pleasure to get your client to start changing what s/he needs to. That’s one of the great points Kylie reiterated – as human beings we’re always motivated to move away from pain and move towards more pleasure.

Kylie Ryan on Behaviour change - from pain to pleasure

Amanda Bracks reiterated this idea with a powerful coaching phrase – “What do you want more?” You may want the easy option but do you want the more rewarding option instead?  For example, “I want the chocolate but I want to be slim more”.

While any health and fitness expert could apply these coaching techniques, coaching is not a one step dance.  Coaching is a consistent process of listening, building trust and communicating with empathy so clients trust what you say and also build up their self-confidence by drawing out their own answers.

Self-confidence is what so many clients lack and it holds them back from achieving what they truly want. If a person doesn’t believe they can do something, why even try?  That’s why top coaches focus on baby steps so that progress happens at the pace the client can cope with.  Good training fills them with confidence in the gym, good coaching fills them with confidence everywhere they go. This doesn’t mean cheer-leading their every move or agreeing with everything that comes out of their mouths.

Fraser Quelch, Head of Training and Development for TRX, rightly said that we want to make “ferocious lions” not “helpless kittens”.  I agree with this and believe that coaching is powerful if the client stays in control. That’s certainly what coaching expert Kathy McKenzie stressed. The best solutions are the ones that come from your client.

So it’s an important skill for coaches to be able to ask timely, meaningful questions and listen.  When coaches let their clients do the talking, their clients take more ownership of the solution and are less likely to resist changes.

For example, what do you think is more powerful? You as a coach telling a client, “Don’t eat sweets at lunch”, or asking “What is one thing you do at lunch that would make the biggest difference to you achieving your goals?”  Our clients will probably surprise us. They know their lives better than we do so they can come up with better, more personal solutions than we can if we ask them the right questions at the right time.

When is the right time to coach?

The trans-theoretical model of behaviour change was referenced a number of times at Filex 2015 where people go through the same stages of change.

Most clients have passed the pre-contemplation, contemplation and preparation stages by the time to come to a health and fitness expert. They’re often in the final two stages – action or maintenance.  The problem is that people are consistently recycling through these stages.  They can, and often do, hit a wall (financial, emotional, whatever) that gets them out of the maintenance stage and can send them right back to the start at the pre/contemplation stage.

Sometimes the trigger that derails a client can be as simple as making a tiny mistake.  It’s not a rational reaction. Something is always better than nothing but people get sucked into a negative spiral of low confidence, low self-esteem and low activity.  Their belief structure is stuck on “all or nothing” mode.  The 2 profiles that are the worst with this belief are also the 2 biggest markets for personal trainers: corporate execs and weight-loss clients.

These sorts of beliefs are what us coaches need to help our clients with most. Despite gathering an impressive collection of beliefs by the time we become an adult, we rarely spend a moment to push the “update” button so many of our beliefs are wildly outdated and unhelpful.   Coaching includes carefully pulling out one belief at a time for our clients, helping them observe it, the way it makes them feel and then challenging whether it’s worth keeping.

What makes a good coach?

That’s why good coach is someone who asks questions and follows up, not just in the session, but outside too.  In the words of another remarkable presenter at Filex, Peter Thurin, it’s “easy to do and easy not to do”.   Knowing how well our clients are progressing between sessions is important to everyone involved because it’s so much easier for us coaches to keep a clients momentum rather than to generate it from scratch again.

An even better coach, helps their client prepare for inevitable “future failure”.  It doesn’t have to be pessimistic and should be proactive. Thomas Plummer talked of “planning failure into the program” so that it doesn’t throw the client off completely when it happens. Humans are much better at dealing with the known than the unknown.  The coach and the client should know their plan B so there’s no need for plan Z (despair).  To get the client prepared, the coach just needs to ask the right questions ahead of time, “If that doesn’t work, what will you do?” or provide questions that trigger the right response when the client is alone.

One of the most succinct ways I saw good coaching being taught to personal trainer came from Ian O’Dwyer and Gareth Houley from OD on Movement. These guys had a fantastic check list that they hard-code into every session they do with their clients. Here’s a break down:

  1. Have you eaten? What was it? When?
  2. Have you drunk? What was it? When?
  3. Have you slept well? Do you feel rested?
  4. Have you moved in the last 24h? Where are you feeling limited? Feeling pain or discomfort?,
  5. What’s your emotional state?  Feeling positive, ready to train?

These guys listen first and move second. They don’t do it for a stamp of approval. They ask these questions because it helps them get the best out of their clients every time. Do you think it get’s Ian & Gareth better results with their clients in the long term…I put money on it!

Even Todd Durkin was talking about mindset.  It’s not just for clients you know? We’ve got to get our minds right. “No stinky thinky” as he puts it because “what you feed grows. What you starve dies.” We’ve got to keep our thoughts positive and helpful to us.

Why coaching is the future for personal trainers?

The reason coaching is so important for the future of the fitness profession is because our current solutions are “failing” if you look at the stats on diabetes, obesity and illness. People buy into the hope that fitness alone will change their life. Fitness is only one part of their life and often the one people find a chore.  Other health aspects like nutrition, sleep and stress can have an even bigger impact fat gain/loss than exercise.

For example, Wendy Sweet highlighted that actually more sleep could be more impactful than more exercise on weight-loss (because of impact on cortisol levels), especially since the common behaviour for people that exercise more is to eat more.

Troy Morgan shared an observation at the end of his presentation. He’s been in the fitness industry for over 20 years and started as a personal trainer before that was even a “thing”.  In that time he’s hardly seen a shift in the percentage of people choosing gym’s or health clubs despite the massive growth in supply. It’s still hovering around that 15 – 20% mark and he’s concerned about what that reflects about the health and fitness industry. Even though personal training has grown quickly too but it’s only serving about 2% of the population…What’s up with that?

Troy sees the silver lining. That’s a lot more people that would benefit from our help. Currently most of these people are stressed and under pressure from their work, their family, their friends and society.  They’re overloaded with confusing health and wellness information. And they don’t seem to have anyone to look out for their best interests. Personal trainers can and should have a more positive role to play here and I believe they will when they learn to become a coach first and trainer second.

Personal Trainers to become coaches

Personal trainers, what do you think?

Are we ready to step up to the challenge? Comment below.

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